The north-western area of Russia is often called the land of the lakes. Europe’s two largest lakes, the Ladoga and the Onega, are situated here. There are over 60,000 lakes and 27,000 rivers in the Republic of Kaelia, the total area of which is 172,000 square kilometers (which exceeds the area of Greece and is almost as large as Great Britain). Those rivers and lakes are rich with fish, including such valued species as salmon, and their banks are plentiful with berries and mushrooms. The natural landscape of this area, with its creek-like bays and stony skerries, is formed by knotted water labyrinths which are a real paradise for fishermen and fans of canoeing alike.
Near petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, there is Kivach, the tallest waterfall in Europe. In earlier days, the noise of cascading water from a height of 11 metres could be heard four to five kilometers away. These days, the power of the waterfall has somewhat lessened due to the dam on the Suna River, but it is still a spectacular sight. Rafters used to drift logs down the waterfall: some of them got stuck in the swirl of white foam and became jammed there. Those log jams had to be dismantled somehow – a rather dangerous enterprise that took the life of many a rafter.
Karelia is also famous for its seids, idols made of boulders and rocks and placed upon special pedestals. A real “pantheon” of thousands of such stone figures has been preserved on the islands east of the town of Kem. The biggest grouping of primitive man’s petroglyphs, dating back to the fourth millennium B.C., can be found here as well, not to mention the “Vodlozero” National Park, the largest of its kind in Europe.
Most of the tourists coming through the northwestern part of Russia make special visits to the Kizhi and Valaam islands. The most beautiful site on Kizhi is the five-storey Church of the Transfiguration (1714), unique with its 22 cupolas. It was built of pine logs without a single nail, only axes and chisels were used to erect this masterpiece. It is said that Peter the Great himself drew the first architectural “map” of the church. Today, pieces of wooden architecture from all over Karelia have been gathered on the island of Kizhi.
A monastery on the island of Valaam, founded in the 14th century, continues to live a life of its own outside of civilization. The monks dried out the swamps and built an open channel drainage system. They also brought black fertile earth, using their own carts, from southern lands hundreds of miles away. Thus the wild northern island was transformed into a garden where even fruit trees grow, despite the severity of the climate. Over 50,000 tourists visit Valaam every year, over half of them from al lover the world.
The city of Paskova enjoys a majestic fate and a great history. It is situated close to the Russian border, at the confluence of the Velikaya and Paskova rivers. The town is first mentioned in manuscripts dating back to the year 903, but the exact date of Pskov’s foundation is still unknown and dates back to antiquity. For centuries, Pskov was a fortress protecting the territory of Russia from its western neighbours. It is in the town of Pskov that the first church sanctified in the name of the Holy Trinity was built. “Where the Trinity is, there Pskov is,” goes the Russian proverb. The old town is situated on a rather high hill made of limestone: it is here that the Pskov Kremlin, called Krom (or detinets), was erected. On a clear day, the golden onion dome of the stone Cathedral of the Trinity can be seen as far as 30 to 40 kilometres away. The most important archaeological monument in Pskov is the so-called cultural layer, concentrated within the Kremlin walls, that reaches to a depth of 7 metres in some areas. One 7 hectares out of 215 have been uncovered to this day, and archaeologists continue their search.
Along the road from Pskov to Pechory, there is an old Russian town called Izborks. A stone cross stands near the town which, according to an old legend, is the burial place of Truvor, one of the Varangian princes who ruled over Russia in the 9th century.
The Pskov-Pechory Monastery of the Holy Assumption, located 70 kilometres to the west of Pskov (near the frontier between Russia and Estonia), should be noted as one of the most visitable sights of the area. The monastery is famous for its catacombs built into layers of brick and sand which are divided into six portions, 200 metre long. These catcombs store over 300 tombs with the ashes of over 10,000 coenobites, and the remains of the representatives of many famous noble families are found there. Due to antural ventilation, a constant air temperature of 5 C is sustained inside the catacombs.
The “Mikhailovskoye” protected museum in the Pskov Region is the Mecca of Russian poetry lovers: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), one of the symbols of Russia, lived here. “Pushkin is our everything,” Russians like to say. The area is very picturesque, with the typical landscape of a Middle Russian town: the Sorot River, an old mill, a giant oak that is over 300 years old, shaded lanes, etc. Pushkin is buried right amidst this beauty, at the top of a hill near the walls of the Svyatogorsk Monastery.
The city of Veliky Oustyug is situated in the Vologda Region and is believed to be the birthplace of Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus. The city is eight centuries old, and many skilled craftsmen live here who make exquisite articles of wood and birch bark, as well as fineries made of silver. The so-called “House of Grandfather Frost,” a unique palace made of wood, has been recently built in the forest about 15 kilometres away from Veliky Ustyug. Comfortable cottages, set up as hotel rooms and winter playgrounds, are located nearby. In the very city of Veliky Ustyug is Grandfather Frost’s residence, and a little eshop selling books and New Year presents has been opened on the premises. In the â€œthrone room,â€ anyone may take photographs with Grandfather Frost and see folk craftsmen at work. There is also a special mail centre called the “Grandfather Frost Post Office.” After all, he receives over 300,000 letters every year, not only from all over Russia but also from abroad.
The Kaliningrad Region is often called “the Amber Area.” It took millions of years for nature to transform the resin from pine trees into bright yellow stones and for the waves of the Baltic Sea to throw them up on the coast. The large deposit of this “sunny stone” is found in the settlement town of Yantarny, meaning “made of amber” in Russian. Ninety percent of the world amber reserves can be found here, and the volume of annual amber production in the town reaches 600-800 tonnes. The Kaliningrad Amber Production Factory makes over 350 different articles from this semi-precious stone, including jewellery, panels, vases, figurines, souvenirs, etc. There is a museum in the city with a permanent display of amber jewellery and other artifacts which have been gathered from ancient times until today.
The Kurische Foreland is a unique natural site in this area, where a continuous strip of sand dunes reaching 200-400 metres wide and 68 metres high stretches for 70 metres into the Baltic Sea. These dunes are in third place in terms of dimension, after those in Vietnam and Northern France; a national park is founded here. The white hills create an illusion of sandy desert. Driving through the dunes is permitted only on specially equipped pathways to avoid landslides, and the sides of the dunes are strengthened with special wooden fascines. Thousands of tourists flock here, attracted by the landscape of dunes combined with the greenery of the forests, the whiteness of the sandy beaches and the blueness of the surrounding area.
The city of Smolensk is situated 400 kilometres to the west of Moscow, near Russia’s border with Belarus, on a scenic route connecting Russia’s capital with the countries of Eastern and Western Europe. It used to be called “the key of the Moscow State,” and the famous fortress wall built by architect Fyodor Kon at the end of the 16th – beginning of the 17 centuries was named “the stone necklace of the Russian land.” Numerous great battles occurred at the walls of this frontier city. To conquer Smolensk was to make great inroads into Russian territory and to present an opportunity of establishing strong geopolitical and strategic positions. Not only did the fortress itself see the horror and glory of war but the streets of the city have as well.
Smolensk is much older than Moscow: it is first mentioned in manuscripts in the year 863, making it closer in age to Kiev and Novgorod, the earliest Russian towns. The oldest buildings in Smolensk are the Churches of Saints Peter and Paul (1146), of John the Theologian (1173-1176) and of Mikhail Archangel (1180-1197). The most important religious artifact in the city is the Icon of the Holy Mother of Smolensk, which is considered to have supernatural healing powers by Russian Orthodox believers. With a population of 350,000. Smolensk definitely deserves to be seen and appreciated. Many tourists traveling back to the West in their cars from Russia will be sure to stop there.
The Volga is referred to as “Russia’s Main Street” and is one of the country’s main symbols, as one can gather from the old song: â€œVolga, Volga, mother of mine!â€ The Volga, spanning 3,530 kilometres, is the longest river in Europe. The first scientist who described and outlined the river on a map was Claudius Ptolomeus (90-160), an ancient Greek astronomer.
The Volga is a great water and tourist route taking its source in the very heart of Russia and extending through the whole central part of the country southward where it empties into the Caspian Sea (the world’s largest lake), thus forming a delta of about 800 smaller tributaries. A system of canals connects the Volga with the Baltic, White and Azov seas, as well as with Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russiaâ€™s largest cities.
The exact location of the Volga’s source was discovered as early as the 17th century Official documents of olden times state that the Volga is an underground spring that becomes a swamp, comes out of the earth from under a birch-tree and flows into Volgo Lake. It was Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (the father of Peter the Great) who gave the order that the Upper Volga Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, founded in 1649, should be erected at the Volga’s source, which was recognized as a sacred site. The red-stone Cathedral of St. Olga stands there today. The first symbolic bridge across the Volga is as close as several dozen feet from the river source, though a child can easily jump across it. This amazing place is a Mecca for tourists making pilgrimages with whole families, so that parents can show the miraculous site to their children.
Seligher Lake, one of the most famous tourist sites in Central Russia, is situated several kilometers away from the Volga’s source. It is the biggest body of water of its kind in a region of numerous criss-crossing channels and currents that stretch southward for over 100 kilometres. The Seligher has over 160 islands and 110 tributaries. The lake shores are surrounded with larch and pine forest, and the glades that line the forest make excellent camping sites. In summer, fishermen’s and canoe riders’ tents can be seen on the islands and all along the sore of the lake. Every June, the water warms up to a minimum temperature of 20 C. The Seligher is a fishermanâ€™s paradise both in summer and winter. About 30 species of fish dwell here, from zanders and breams to vendaces and eels, which have been bread here since the 1950s. The surrounding forests are full of blueberries, foxberries, wild strawberries and mushrooms ripe for the picking.